Science & Tech

Using Music to Unlock Memory and Identity

There’s a soundtrack to your life, from the heartbeat you heard before you were born to the favorite songs that surround you as you walk down the street. You’ve probably had the experience of hearing a piece of a song while at the mall or the gym that plunged you into a particular moment, the place you were in, and the people you were with.

“Music is inseparable from emotion,” the late neurologist Oliver Sacks told writer-director-producer Michael Rossato-Bennett in Alive Inside (2014). A few days ago, together with the Ray Dolby Brain Health Center at CPMC in San Francisco, we held a screening of the documentary, which tells the story of social worker Dan Cohen and his founding of Music and Memory, a nonprofit based in New York.

Dan Cohen, Music and Memory’s founder and executive director, unpacks headphones for use by Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. (Photos courtesy of Michael Rossato-Bennett, 2012)

A former computer-industry worker, Cohen first volunteered in a nursing home in 2006, bringing music to the people he met there, and loved what he saw. “With music,” he said recently, “residents come alive, become more social, more engaged.”

Sacks agreed: music “will call up the whole person and the many parts of the brain that go with it.” For people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, music can unlock buried memories. “Music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus,” said Sacks.

At Dolby, we take a special interest in Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that our company’s late founder, engineer and inventor Ray Dolby, developed in 2010. More than 5.3 million Americans had the disease in 2015, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and there is no cure—yet.

“Dolby has long explored the science of sight and sound, with researchers who study brain science and perception,” said Joan Scott, Director of Community Relations at Dolby. “With the link to the fight against Alzheimer’s,” she explained, “Music and Memory seemed like the kind of organization we wanted to help.”

The nonprofit trains workers in nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities to gather information about residents’ musical leanings, collect 100 or 200 songs they love, and transfer the music to Apple® iPod® devices for them to play. This clip from Alive Inside shows the effect on one resident, Henry.

Listening to this music, Dr. Sacks explained in the film, “Henry has reacquired his identity for a while.”

When this clip went viral in 2012, Cohen said, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services contacted him. The agency wanted to fund an 18-month study to measure the effects of personalized music in 100 nursing homes for 1,500 residents. “Six months in,” Cohen said, “the feedback was so positive they asked to go to another 100 homes and 1,500 more residents.” More recently, the California Association of Health Facilities “is rolling this out to 500 nursing homes, with a plan to go to 300 more homes.” The Music and Memory program is in more than 2,800 facilities in 50 states and eight countries, with more than 50,000 iPods in use.

Dolby recently gave Cohen’s organization a grant of $10,000 to help bring Music and Memory training and support to facilities in San Francisco and Australia, said Scott. “There’s a waiting list of care centers that want to work with them, and we want to work with communities around the world where Dolby has a presence.”

As Cohen tells the audience in Alive Inside, “I’m hoping people are ready to come along on this journey,” bringing music to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. If you’d like to help, visit the Music and Memory website to learn how to mail in a used iPod, make a donation, or volunteer.

“We’d especially like to get high school students involved in visiting nursing-home residents. They’re very tech-savvy and can assist residents by interviewing them” to learn what music they like, or to download music and load it onto iPods.

No matter your age, Cohen suggested, “create a personalized playlist for someone you love. Anyone can become sick, not just the old, and they’ll appreciate the music.”